‘Look at Me: XXXTentacion’ Director Talks About the Complications of Telling the Controversial Rapper’s Story
We sat with Look at Me: XXXTentacion director Sabaah Folayan who talked about the film’s purpose while taking the time to respond to a few questions regarding some concerns.
Something nefarious lurks underneath the surface of Look at Me, Hulu’s documentary based on the life and career of the late Florida rapper XXXtentacion. Directed by Sabaah Folayan, with help from THE FADER, the intent was to highlight mental illness and expound on X’s humanity, as opposed to the monstrous image conjured by his heinous crimes. (XXXtentacion had a long track record of violent domestic abuse, which he admitted to.) But part of creating humanity is acceptance and acknowledgment of someone’s past sins, not abolishing it through the means of good PR.
Cleo Onfroy, X’s mother, spearheads the film. She has the most prominent presence through its 113-minute runtime. Cleo is joined by family and friends of the late rapper, including XXX’s manager Solomon Sobande, best friend and fellow rapper Ski Mask the Slump God, and the rest of his Members Only crew. X’s rise to fame is documented throughout the film, from his live-streamed fights on Periscope to the viral mugshot from his arrest for domestic violence and abuse towards his ex-girlfriend, Geneva Ayala. Cleo states that X’s negative actions proved to be successful in garnering attention as if it were a marketing tactic, but that negativity existed in his life long before music became an idea.
XXXTentacion — born Jahseh Onfroy — suffered from abuse as a child, beaten by his father when he received poor grades in school. His mother was busy working, unable to emotionally support and nourish Jahseh, and opting to financially support him instead. Fights and sordid actions frequented as Jah grew older, spiraling as he reached his late teens. The more rotten he became, the disdain only grew from his family and those around him. At one point in the documentary, Ski Mask recalls a time X pondered why everyone hated him for being himself, unaware of his destruction.
X manifested the violence and terror into music by using the darkest pits of depression and rage to construct songs. His breakout single, “Look At Me!,” is ransacked with menace, malice, and rebellion. The woozy, drunken synths make X’s pleads to look at him sound boastful and playful until the energy does a 180, seeing the rapper scream about rough sex and emo girls rocking slit wrists like bracelets. Beyond the morbid and unhinged content is the id behind teenage angst, living in a world where a defeatist mindset thrives and everything and everyone sucks. Then there are songs like “Depression and Obsession” and “I Spoke to the Devil in Miami” that brought to life the hell of living in your own mind. Millions connected to X’s pain and internal strife, and they felt he understood theirs.
We sat with Look at Me director Sabaah on Zoom. She broke down the film’s purpose while taking the time to respond to a few questions regarding some concerns that arose while watching it.
What drew you to this project, especially with X and all his various controversies?
Sabaah Folayan: I think in part it was the controversy… Not the controversy itself, but the way that he handled it in terms of the transparency that he had in his music and his social media about grappling with mental health issues. I think that whenever you see people acting out violently, you’re seeing symptoms of mental health and what it means for the response is different in every situation. I think that at least having a sensitivity and understanding to that is important so that’s what I saw, and it was exciting to have the opportunity to speak to that from a sensitive perspective, I really wanted to speak directly to young people and people who were impacted by mental illness, and I felt like this was an amazing entry point to have that conversation without it being academic, without it being too analytical but really grounded in something real, and maybe just push that conversation a little bit further.
When did you first meet Cleo?
She was the second person that I interviewed. I went down to Miami. I went to her huge house and I was kind of feeling emotional. And I remember Solomon was pitching me saying my resume and my past experience, and I could see Cleo kind of eyes glazing over. it was kinda really business-y and something just told me to speak from the heart, and so I did. I talked about how I saw Jahseh as someone who wanted to help people and needed the same help that he was trying to help give and didn’t get that help in time. And once I said that and she saw that I understood what his mission was, that’s when we kind of connected and we had a conversation about grief and her feelings in the aftermath of losing her son.
I think it’s very important that you highlighted the fact that X didn’t have that opportunity to tackle that internal grief. I also felt that Cleo is the most prominent in the film, and she talks about how the negative attention worked. Would you consider that kind of, in a sense, enabling the behavior?
Yeah, it was. I think one thing that I think you only realize if you have a loved one who struggles with mental health is that you don’t really get to decide what they do or how they react, they are still human beings with personal individual agency. Jahseh is actually someone who took agency for himself at a very young age, younger than anyone was really ready for. And so what I saw was a family who was trying to keep the things that kind of felt like it was holding him together and giving him something to focus on and stay on track with, I think that they were doing what they could to support that because that was what was working when he was having struggles in so many other areas.
Now in terms of bad things being profitable, that enabling is definitely taking place on a structural level, on the level of the music industry, and on the level of pop culture. I think that message is very clear. Young people are getting it loud and clear, and I think that there is a really deep conversation to be heard about the fact that collectively, we incentivize, we celebrate, we party to some of the darkest words and ideas. And then when a certain event happens, that hits a certain nerve, we become suddenly scandalized, but there is no consistency in the way that we treat and respond to violence.
Ski Mask the Slump God made a point in the film that they sold violence to the audience. What draws consumers to violence and why do you think it sells above other forms of art?
What draws consumers to violence? Anger is an emotion that is one of the most difficult to process because it’s a protective emotion. Anger covers up the pain. And a lot of us in our world, we’re not even in situations that are safe enough for us to be hurting. It’s like if you’re on a battlefield you can’t be wounded, you can’t be down, you can’t lay down and rest, you can’t lay down and cry. In particular men are taught that they’re not even supposed to cry. So instead of the natural softer emotions that would be felt we have this anger and it builds and it builds and it builds and it builds. So when someone like Jahseh comes along, who can unleash it combined with a musical genius, combined with an incredible sense of cool and communication and style and bravado, we can vicariously process out that anger and it feels really good because it’s the alternative to being sad and being down and crying and being vulnerable.
If we wanna see a world that’s less violent, if we wanna see people being less drawn to anger and violence, we have to create a context where people can grieve, where people can be soft, where people can be tender, where people can be in pain and it has to be safe to do that. And as long as our world is full of poverty, as long as capitalism keeps people under all of this pressure, or they can’t take a day off, they can’t take a minute off, they can’t stop. As long as the criminal justice system is the only tool that we have to respond when something goes wrong, we’re not gonna have that safety, and we’re still gonna have this appetite for violence.
One thing you just said that I wanna point out is the need to cover up the emotions and especially in young black men who often are placed as the “man of the house” and have to have this macho bravado. How do you feel that affected X into adulthood?
I don’t know. It’s hard for me to answer that question. I think for me as a woman, I have learned to be more conscientious about holding space for my male friends and partners and relationships, holding space for them to be vulnerable, and understanding them as being just as tender as me or a female friend. I don’t know what it’s like to walk in a man’s shoes. I can only imagine that it’s a great deal of pressure and I know from people in my own family who have had reactions to that pressure where it’s gotten too much and they haven’t been able to handle it. And so I think my heart really goes out to men. I think that’s the part. And I’m really happy that you asked that question actually, because I think that’s the part that we a lot of times miss or we talk about patriarchy, we talk about misogyny, we talk about it in terms of the ways that women need to be protected. And those are absolutely true, but we don’t talk about enough as the fact that men also need to be protected from this because human beings are human beings.
In the documentary, it’s highlighted that X was nurtured through financial means rather than emotional means. How do you think that played a role in those years? Because I would imagine that that lack of emotional attachment would leave quite the coldness.
These are the things that he said, and the things that I included in the film. He talked about him leaving a sense of him not being enough because he felt like it was because of him that he wasn’t getting what it is that he wanted. But I think that this question actually has a very deep historical element because the way that the modern world was created on the backs of people of color’s labor and through displacing people of color from their land and through people of European descent acting out. With these acts of displacement and violence and exploitation, everyone was put in this position not to be very human, not to be able to be very loving. None of these things creates an open, stable, kind, happy, effusive environment. And so we’re all recovering, including Cleo recovering from what we were giving and trying to give people a little bit more. I think each parent is just trying to do a little bit better than what happened to them. And there hasn’t really ever been a big intervention, there hasn’t been an intervention of the scale of the problem ever. So I think that that feeling of not being enough, that frustration, anything that came out of that lack of nurturing is something that you we are probably gonna see across the board in a lot of different people, especially people who have legacies of historical trauma.
The violence is what originally propelled him to stardom. His mugshot for domestic abuse was the cover art for his breakout single. “Look at Me!” Do you feel the acknowledgment of using violence as entertainment delegitimizes victims of abuse?
Yeah, I think it does. It’s almost like bragging. It almost puts a stamp on how unimportant and invaluable that survivor is. It reinforces the idea that this is okay, that it’s normal, that it’s even something to be celebrated, from a masculine perspective. I think that the lack of care for the survivor that it shows is really, really devastating, and I think it’s really telling about where he was in the immediate moment following that abuse. And it speaks to this idea of transformation. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s not something that happens the second someone is accused of wrongdoing. It’s something that, for X, was happening over the course of months and over the course of, I guess, a year before he passed.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this film?
I hope that anyone, whether it be a family, or whether it be a lawmaker or a funder, a philanthropist, or anyone who sees this film, I hope that they’re motivated to look deeper at questions of mental health and ask how can they be supportive? How can they create a safer space for young people to be honest? How can they encourage there to be more funding for people who are working in this space, for the social workers, and the counselors, and the mentors, and the therapists, and all of those things? And how can we normalize having conversations about mental health, making treatment available, making alternative forms of justice available in cases of domestic violence, forms that create more healing and do not actually inflict more violence? I just hope that everyone can become a little bit more thoughtful and a little bit more directly engaged in problem solving.